January 15, 2020

Chairs DeFazio, Larsen Statements from Hearing Titled “Oversight of Working Conditions for Airline Ground Workers”

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) during today’s hearing titled: “Oversight of Working Conditions for Airline Ground Workers.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chair Larsen, for calling today’s hearing on working conditions for the tens of thousands of employees who are intrinsic to the operations of an airline—the workers who load bags, clean cabins, prepare food, and assist passengers in wheelchairs, among other roles.

But this hearing is about more than just the unreasonable treatment of these hardworking employees. It’s about putting profits over people: yet another vignette in a larger story of economic inequality and injustice in America, and of American companies subservient to Wall Street at the expense of their employees and, ultimately, their customers.

Let’s start with some numbers:

  • U.S. airlines made a collective $11.8 billion in profits in 2018.
  • One airline alone has rewarded Wall Street with $12 billion in share buybacks since 2014. Others have done similarly.
  • The CEOs of the three U.S. legacy carriers—American, Delta, and United—made a combined $37.5 million in 2018. According to a Skift analysis, the American CEO earned 195 times the median pay of his employees; the Delta CEO earned 184 times workers’ median pay; and the United CEO, 144 times.

Yet, today we will hear that many employees who work on behalf of these and other airlines, either in catering kitchens or in the elements on the tarmac:

  • make as little as $9 an hour;
  • sleep in their cars in employee parking lots;
  • occasionally suffer grievous injuries, sometimes even fatal injuries, on the job;
  • can’t afford health insurance; and
  • even sell blood plasma to make ends meet.

Large mainline carriers have been outsourcing more and more of their operations to save a dollar here, a dollar there. They outsource flights—even flights on trunk routes like Washington to Chicago—to regional airlines. They outsource baggage handling, catering, and cabin cleaning to contractors.

In fact, a labor economist on today’s panel will offer that this outsourcing of ground work has increased by nearly 60 percent since 2001. And as anyone knows, in a system where the lowest bidder wins, it’s a race to the bottom.

We may well have reached that bottom in Miami, where an obscure firm called Eulen America provides ground-support services like baggage-handling and cabin-cleaning for American and Delta. Eulen has been cited for exposing employees to cockroach infestations, excessive heat, and other dangerous and unhealthy working conditions. Mr. Esteban Barrios, who will testify on today’s panel, is a Eulen employee who loads and unloads bags on Delta planes in Miami. In his written testimony, Mr. Barrios says, “Sometimes I’m lifting almost 300 bags a day by myself. My whole body hurts. My hand is constantly in pain. But, what can we do? We don’t have sick days so we can’t take a day off to get better. So we just take pain killers and try to get through the day.”

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins has also joined us today and will describe how a Eulen corporate minion intimidated her on a visit to the Eulen operation and others at the Miami airport.

On top of often absurdly low wages, airline ground workers can face some of the poorest working conditions in America. Workers report, and contractors have been cited for, routine exposure to harmful chemicals, communicable diseases or blood-borne pathogens, excessive heat on tarmacs, and dangerous noise levels from surrounding aircraft. Workers have been thrown from tractors due to missing or defective seatbelts, have been pinned beneath or struck by vehicles on the tarmac, and have fallen from jet bridges.

These workers have been injured, paralyzed, or even killed in their inherently dangerous jobs. In fact, a baggage worker was killed just last year after his tug vehicle rolled over on the tarmac at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. One of today’s witnesses, Ms. Donielle Prophete, knew this gentleman and can speak to the troubling working conditions she and her colleagues face at Charlotte and at airports around the country.

While we sit comfortably waiting to board our flights, airline ground workers are out of sight, out of mind. That ends today.

There’s no question airline ground workers perform work of great importance that is vital to keeping our aviation system thriving and moving forward. However, it’s unconscionable that while thousands and thousands of these workers are facing such deplorable working conditions each day, they’re still living below the poverty level.

We must do more to ensure airline ground workers enjoy livable wages, and healthy and safe working conditions. I have spent my career fighting on behalf of American workers. As Chairman of this Committee, I will ensure we continue to bring light to the often-bleak issues facing American workers today, in each mode of transportation. We will keep today’s panel and their stories in mind as we carry out our Committee’s work in the years to come and ensure that transportation enterprises stop putting profits over people.

Thank you again, Chair Larsen, for calling this important hearing. I look forward to the witness testimony.

Chair DeFazio’s remarks as delivered can be found here.

Chair Larsen:

Good morning and thank you to the witnesses for joining today’s hearing on working conditions for airline ground workers. 

In my time on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I believe today is the first hearing dedicated to issues facing ground workers: the women and men who load baggage, clean cabins, assist passengers in wheelchairs and prepare meals, among other jobs.

Without ground workers, commercial air travel would come to a halt. That is why the House passed major pro-worker legislation last year to support the hardworking women and men who literally keep the airline industry and the economy moving.

  • The Butch Lewis Act, which passed the House in July, protects hard-earned workers’ pensions and long-term financial security.
  • The Raise the Wage Act, which also passed the House in July, supports American workers by raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2025.
  • It is my hope the House will soon vote on the Protect the Right to Organize, or PRO Act to strengthen workers’ right to organize, bargain collectively and hold employers who violate workers’ rights accountable.

A strong economic foundation for workers requires fair and secure workplaces.

While progress has been made, Congress must do more to provide oversight for and improve the pay and working conditions of ground workers—the two main issues I want to focus on at today’s hearing.

Even as the airline industry continues to grow and more people than ever are choosing to fly, not all ground workers are sharing in the benefits.

Today, the Committee will hear from labor representatives about the tens of thousands of ground workers who make less than $15 an hour—some making under $10 an hour—working long days and nights in catering kitchens or on airport tarmacs.

The Committee will also hear stories highlighting the unsafe and unhealthy conditions many ground workers face.

For instance, a recent Communications Workers of America (CWA) survey of 900 passenger service agents at Envoy Air, a regional subsidiary of a large mainline carrier, revealed that 27 percent of respondents rely on some form of public assistance, often food stamps.

An April 2019 investigation by the Miami CBS affiliate revealed troubling safety and health issues in the Miami operation of a major ground-support provider.

Workers reported cockroach infestations in vans transporting blankets and other supplies to aircraft and were instructed “not to waste time cleaning [cabins] too thoroughly,” even when the workers encountered biohazards in airplane cabins.

A federal investigation found the company was also exposing its employees to heat that “was causing or likely to cause harm.”

The Committee will hear from Mr. Esteban Barrios about his personal experience as an employee for that company. 

We will also hear from Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who is on the front line in Miami in the effort to secure better working conditions for ground workers at the Miami airport. I look forward to their testimony. 

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. These reports speak to the social responsibility—and unwavering commitment to safety—expected of all firms engaged in aviation.

A representative of Airlines for America is with us today, and I look forward to hearing his perspective on how airlines will work to ensure ground workers are compensated fairly and protected from unsafe working conditions.

The 21st century U.S. aviation system is deeply interconnected.

Safety lapses on the ground threaten safety in the air.

That is why it is imperative for Congress to further explore these issues.

In a time of record airline profits and a record number of passengers traveling by air, there is an obvious disconnect when a growing number of ground workers cannot enjoy the benefits of a system that thrives on their backs of their labor.

It is my hope today’s hearing will shed light on this committee’s opportunity to improve the safety culture of the entire aviation industry.

A safer, fairer work environment for ground workers will create a safer, stronger aviation system for workers, passengers and airlines alike.

Thank you again to today’s witnesses. I look forward to our discussion.

Chair Larsen’s remarks as delivered can be found here.